Illustration: Moa Franzén

Essays Biopolitics of Besiegement. Writing, Sacrifice, and Bare Life in Lidiia Ginzburg’s Notebooks

A close reading of Ginzburg’s diaries shows how a fight against a shrinking living space is conducted on two levels: the purely physical fight for survival during the famine in Leningrad and the intellectual fight in a cultural environment increasingly dictated.

Published on on August 1, 2010

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Lidiia Iakovlevna Ginzburg (1902–1990) is primarily known to the international reading public as the author of Blockade Diary1, a testimony from the years of the Siege of Leningrad. Originally given a title which in a literal translation from Russian would be “Notes by a Besieged Human Being” (Zapiski blokadnogo cheloveka2), this book is one of the most outstanding documents of World War II, describing survival under extreme circumstances which reduce humanness to the “bare existence” (Ginzburg’s term) of a walking corpse; a state of survival in which neither life proper nor death itself appears possible. In this early piece of biopolitics, Ginzburg analyzes biopower as it is imposed by the technologies of mass annihilation in war, terror, and starvation. The uniqueness of Lidiia Ginzburg’s project is its objective of not only narrating but theorizing the Siege as a symbolic economy, with the emphasis on individual strategies of survival, the isomorphism between survival politics and those of writing, and the relations among bio- and thanatopolitics, body, and language.

Ginzburg’s “besieged human being”, however, is a human condition that evolves long before the onset of the Siege of Leningrad in September 1941. It was as early as 1926 that Ginzburg had started her lifelong project of writing notebooks — the lion’s share of which remain unpublished — which she continued until her death in 1990. As we now know them, the notebooks represent analytical and biographical fragments in which the testimony of the current moment is interpellated with historical analogies, structural analysis, character sketches, philosophic generalizations, and aphoristic moral paradoxes. Ginzburg was a literary historian of the younger generation of Russian formalism. After the repression of the formalists at the end of the 1920s she, like many of her colleagues, was struggling to secure a way to continue her professional work. Private notebooks became her intellectual underground while she was employed in auxiliary positions in the Soviet publishing industry. It was one such position, editor at the radio committee in Leningrad during the war, that helped her survive and document the Siege.

However, Ginzburg’s image of besieged humanness relates not simply to the experience of being locked up in the extermination of Leningrad. As her notebooks now gradually appear in full to the reading public, Leningrad acquires a paradigmatic value. In Ginzburg’s historical and structural analyses, body and language, biology and biography in besiegement are not generated ex nihilo, but evolve systematically alongside technologies of power and speech strategies in the context of Stalinist modernization. This evolution is not interrupted at all by the disaster of Leningrad but logically culminates in it. Ginzburg’s subject of “20th century catastrophes” is always already besieged: the faceless object of biopolitical and ideological manipulation which responds to it by manipulating, in turn, those scarce linguistic resources that are left as still unoccupied by the unitary language of the state and war machine. The skills in manipulating language determine the subject’s strategies in pursuing quite modest claims “to survive and to live on without losing a human image” (p. 198). The value of Ginzburg’s analysis lies in the fact that, while giving a detailed account of the physiological, psychological, and social effects of starvation under the Siege, she also treats the Muselmann of the Siege as an allegory that represents the decline and survival of writing under the threefold pressure of economic necessity, political terror, and total mobilization.

Starvation disease (alimentary dystrophy, according to the Soviet medical nomenclature3) is characterized primarily by the atrophy and critical loss of bodily tissues. A comparable loss of flesh occurs in writing under the pressure of politically controlled institutionalization. According to Ginzburg, in a writer, life and writing are inseparable: “An author is a human being who is incapable of living a life if he does not write” (p. 147). And another definition: an author is “a human being who writes because he is capable of no other relation to reality.” (p. 111) To be thus means to have a relation to being; the flesh of life is made of tissues of relationships; to live is to participate in relations, and the purpose of writing is living proper. The politics of writing are fundamentally biopolitical, writing being defined as a sine qua non of living (for a writer).
Since the author is also “the most accomplished reader of his time” (p. 35), reading and writing constitute one process, reading being the inner speech of writing. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the Leningrad of the late 1920s and early 1930s, “people get banned like books. After which one loses interest in the person thus banned, one stops buying his books and is afraid of putting them where others might see them” (p. 79). “If I found myself on an uninhabited island, I would most probably start writing in the sand”, says Ginzburg to a friend who rejoins, “You are writing in the sand” (p. 126).

“An atmosphere”, “a specific inertia of writing” (p. 93), a lifestyle in which reading and writing are inseparable from living itself, is an attitude in which the young Ginzburg had been cultivated under the aegis of her great formalist teachers Tynianov and Eikhenbaum at the formalist Institute of Art History in revolutionary Petrograd. Destroyed in 1929 in an ideological pogrom, for Ginzburg it will forever remain an image of a pure vita theoretica, a complete fusion of life and knowledge, life and expression; theory elevated into a principle of existence. However, “the gay times of denuding the technique4 are gone […] Nowadays [in 1928] it is time when technique should be hidden as carefully as possible.” (p. 54) The demise of the Institute in 1929 was facilitated by a fierce ideological attack, but the proximate cause of the demise was an internal conflict. Ginzburg’s notes from the late 1920s and ’30s are full of accounts of confrontations with former colleagues who are adapting formalist techniques to the needs of the Stalinist symbolic regime.

While a living relationship in the theoretical community is dying, it is useful connections that come to replace it. The flesh of life (writing is a relation to life and thus equals living a life, as we recall) melts, and soon it is only a skeleton of “connections” that is left. “Connections” are actively sought for pragmatic reasons but are also painful reminders of the relationship that is dead. Vita theoretica breaks up into life separated from theory, and writing separated from experience. The writer has to find for himself a source of living in what Ginzburg calls “profession” — reading and writing as applied skills useful for state construction. This is a routine practice that is adequately remunerated by an institution but is not inspired by the presence of a relationship. “Profession” is curse and nourishment at the same time. Life-as-writing and life-as-relationship postulated as an indivisible whole in a writer fall apart.

We write and we know that there can be various situations: the book will be rejected and you will not get paid at all; you will receive an advance, but the book will not be published; you will receive 60 percent and the book will not be published; the book will not be published, but you will receive your fee in full; the book will be detained for a year and a half, or two years, or three years and will never be published. At any event, in the process we will be yelled at, and at any event, there will be never ever any joy (pp. 97–98)

The party respects “profession” and is willing to pay for smoothness in its exercise: formal techniques and routines of literary work, an ability to put words together, and skills in articulating the will of the authorities in an understandable smooth language. Good money is paid for teaching, while those who, notwithstanding, for some reason cannot abandon writing, can feed on “parodic and cheap belle-lettrism in which a beastly lack of consciousness combines with the excessive fatigue of the brain” (pp. 121).

The intellectuals are inventing new methods of working with the “technique”. The gay times of “denuding” are over, but the “technique” has not at all lost its value: instead of divesting, why not invest it? Originally an object of the formalist’s critical reflection, “technique” is evolving into a complicated machine for the production and propagation of ideology, a machine that does not need a creative author and can be managed technologically by a “professional”. Such a “technique” is an attractive commodity. It is no longer the author who writes his work, but the “technique” that “writes” the work and the reality the work is supposed to “reflect”, including the author himself. In the meantime, the writer finds out that in the process he

[…] is only responsible for the nimbleness of his own movements. This is a good and not quite unfruitful schooling for those who write because they have chosen the profession of the writer. But this is a horrifying, irreparably devastating moral corruption for him who cannot live a life if he is not writing. (pp. 110–111)

A pedantically responsible observer, Ginzburg makes a note concerning the practice of producing realities by operating “techniques”. She analyzes the product of her own authorial effort which culminated in her writing “somebody else’s book” (ne svoiu knigu). This book, a novel for teenagers written on commission for money, appears to her as if it were miraculously produced by an alien force.

[…It is] a book with a pre-determined result and a pre-fabricated attitude towards reality […]. The main thing, however, is that one feels relieved of creative responsibility. Between the author and his book there arise some intermediate auxiliary series. When the book has passed through those series, it becomes a reflection of those series but never an expression of human being. […] A person who succeeds in producing such a literary convention breathes freely. It is the State that is responsible for his ideology, it is history that is responsible for the subject matter, and it is the system of genres that is responsible for his literary manner. (p. 110)

The effect of practicing “techniques” is total travesty. Such writing is always in excess, “words scattering around and flowing into new words and not being able to stop” (p. 126).Verbalization fills up the life of the intellectual as water fills up body tissues swollen by starvation. It consumes time, thought, and attention; it distracts from uneasy thoughts, blocks anxiety, “calms down and refreshes” (ibid.). Verbalization serves as a painkiller for the amputated consciousness as it takes over “that line along which thoughts, values, and self-esteem are located in a human being” (p. 107).

A specific obsession developed in starvation is the longing of the patient to recover the wholeness and fullness of the body surrendered to hunger, to become “smooth” again. Ginzburg refers to this mania as an effect of “starvation trauma […] in the intellectuals of the 1930s” (p. 645). The dystrophic phantasm of smoothness also spreads into language. Punctuated by “the hungry trauma”, verbalization seeks a smoothness of speech trying to fill up the gaping semantic emptiness inside itself by carefully observing the rules of correctness. “Starvation trauma” transforms writing into a totality of self-censorship. Ginzburg meticulously registers every stage of this transformation, partly by observing the metamorphosis of her once free-thinking colleagues into the functionaries of Stalinist literature; partly by observing her own evolution into an insignificant clerk servicing the ideological machine.

The mania of smoothness provokes a shared anxiety of puncture. It is united by belief in the impossibility of a creative act, acting being reduced to choice, choice restricted by circumstances. Creative or theoretical writing decays, giving way to editing and proofreading. A disciple of the formalists is now perfecting the skill of setting in missing commas: punctuation in control over puncture. These operations produce a totally correct language, ideally coherent and smooth as a mirror. This is a language that is locked inside itself like a city in a siege. Later on, describing Leningrad during the catastrophic months of the winter of 1941, Ginzburg points out the dead city’s “mocking beauty” (p. 619) — such is also the beauty of a frozen and hungry word created through the cumulative effect of trauma, on the one hand, and corrective compensation, on the other. The simulated, carefully engineered and maintained reality of self-censoring writing is by the same token repression and protection. The evil of empty language protects against an even worse evil of complete silence. This experience of simulated authorship fully reproduced itself later on in the daily experiences of the social dissociation of the Siege.

[R]eality was manifestly appearing in its double function: hostile and protective. All that pressed, rejected, poisoned, and burned — all that also served as protection and as substitute for evil. It served as a physical defense and a shelter from the horror of internal isolation. (p. 617)

Awakened from his daydreaming inside the envelope of smooth writing, the writing subject finds himself in the besieged frozen city, “a mockingly beautiful city all covered with cracking frost” (p. 619). It is the winter of 1941–1942. Leningrad stands besieged since late summer. Bread rations in January and February are calculated at approximately 300 grams of bread per person per day.5 Already in November, people had started eating cats and dogs. Also in November, the NKVD reports the first case of cannibalism: a widow of a Red Army soldier, a jobless mother of four murdered her baby to feed the elder children6. It is unbearably cold outside and inside.

..People are running across the frosty city trying to cover the distance which all of sudden acquired a reified materiality. Those who are better educated recollect Dante, that very circle of Inferno where cold reigns supreme. (p. 619)

Hypothermia is still another symptom of starvation disease: the body utterly weakened by hunger is unable to retain warmth. As for Dante, Ginzburg means the last, ninth circle that is populated by traitors. They are submerged in the icy immobility of eternal cosmic cold.

German air raids killed only 10 percent of the hundreds of thousand victims of the first year of the Siege. How many were eliminated by the NKVD is not clear. The overwhelming majority, still not calculated but assumed to be over 1.5 million people, died of starvation. The city of hunger, an economy of symbolic exchange in dystrophic writing that had been evolving for a long time, all of a sudden became the material reality of everyday life. Here too, life critically depends on techniques of survival; survival in its turn critically depends on the iterability of routines. The daily cycle is filled up with tedious but necessary operations that reproduce in every detail the routines of the day before; an untiring maintenance of trivial automatisms. Taking out the garbage, getting a pail of water up to the 6th floor, waiting for one’s turn in an interminable bread line, struggling through cold and snow on your way to work (those who had work) or to the cemetery to provide a burial for a family member (those who had had family members). Cycle after cycle, day by day, famished life gradually extinguishes itself in an unending repetition of routines of its own maintenance.

The short diurnal cyclic intervals accumulate into longer cycles of siege seasons. The winter with its devastating alimentary dystrophy gives way to spring, and the dystrophic patient feeds on grass and exposes the body to the feeble sunshine trying to get hold of and retain at least a minimal resource of energy to survive the dystrophy of the winter to come. This is how dystrophic time is composed of recurring cycles: each one involves the gradual loss of strength, until the patient almost reaches the fatal limit — and then life slowly returns over an interval of more favorable circumstances. If one organizes one’s strengths properly, if the body is able and willing to clutch at life, and if there is a little bit of luck, such cycles can recur several times, each time leading to a deeper decline.

As distinct from the “quick death” of war, the death of the dystrophic patient is slow but “easy” (p. 735), because the patient is not responsible for it. The arrival of death is preceded by a “disease of the will”, when the patient claims for himself “the supreme right to stupor” (p. 738), the right to “die in relief” (p. 735). Besides death, there is nothing that could disturb the clockwork cyclicity of survival, and there is nothing that promises a change. Death, however, does not belong to the dystrophic subject who is morally paralyzed both by hunger and by the exertion of his own struggle for survival. It is alienated from the dying subject: ”A death without resistance. A death without surprise: here he was, and here he’s gone.” (p. 739)

What is it that prevents the almost dead dystrophic patient from making the last step into “the supreme right to stupor”? “Life […] with its remaining desires. The desire to live and the readiness to take deadly risks that glimmered through the stupor.” (ibid) Holding death at a distance, desire returns the dystrophic patient into an infernal reality that endlessly rotates along its orbits of evil. As compared to the “glimmering stupor” of an alienated death, “the circular movement of dystrophic life” (p. 621) is only a relative evil. The barren circular time of the Siege alleviates and anesthetizes a much more evil evil, the absolute evil of non-death in the ultimate alienation of “bare existence”.

Ginzburg describes survival in terms similar to those of verbalization, counterfeit writing through the automatic exploitation of “technique”. The dystrophy of the body as well as the dystrophy of writing both have a circular shape and a compensational character. Automated words “scatter around” in alienation from their realia, just like the dystrophic citizen of the city of hunger “runs around in circles and cannot reach reality.” (p. 658) Death is as “easy” for the dystrophic patient as automated verbalization is easy for its author. Death is not owned by the dying subject, just like “somebody else’s books” (like the one Ginzburg herself produced in the 1930s) do not belong to their authors.

Death, survival, and verbalization all develop under the sign of one overarching metonymy: a lesser evil substituting for a greater one. It is precisely this choice in favor of evil to prevent a still more profound one that determines the self-identity of the “more educated” dystrophic reader of Dante’s Divina commedia: death, survival, and writing all unite in the infernal totality of betrayal. Forty years later, looking backward and summing up the spirit of Stalinism, Ginzburg comes forward with a concise formulaic conclusion:

[T]he sign of the time is not terror, not cruelty […], but betrayal. All-pervading betrayal that no one has evaded — neither those who wrote denunciations, nor those who kept silent. (p. 308)

Summarizing the Zeitgeist as “all-pervading betrayal that no one has evaded”, Ginzburg uses the metaphors of sacrificial burning: “the unprecedented mutual immolation and self-immolation among scholars and writers” (p. 104).

The perversity of the Siege, as the subject recognizes it in Dante’s Inferno, lies in the way it eliminates the difference between betrayal and sacrifice. Here, betrayal should be understood as an economic rather than a moral term. Even though almost dead, the dystrophic subject is not by any means relieved of the duty to participate in sacrificial acts. On the contrary, in the city of hunger sacrificial and self-sacrificial choices become a daily necessity. Everyone is included in the pyramid of the distribution of food and everyone participates in the hierarchy of “dependants” and “earners”. The resource of survival in the city of hunger is not sufficient for everybody to survive. In Leningrad’s self-enclosure, there exists an operating hierarchical difference between those who are relatively necessary and whom the city is still prepared to provide with a minimum amount of survival — and, on the other hand, those who are not necessary at all and thus wholly dispensable. Food cannot be properly earned in exchange for work, it can only be received in the form of food rations, that is, as a badge of privilege and a token of being a requested citizen. The subject who is privileged because he is usable by the system is surrounded by a group of unusable dependants — old parents and young children, less privileged lovers and friends. The “dependants” are entitled to no gift from the city, and it becomes the sole responsibility of the dystrophic subject to decide which of them he would share his 300 grams of bread with and, consequently, which of them would die and which of them would get an additional chance. The dystrophic subject, himself standing on the brink of extinction, against his own will, assumes the role of the oikonomos, dispensing meager survival to the other. His everyday existence is converted into an unending chain of sacrifices. He sacrifices not out of love, not as a gift, but out of a duty that is imposed on him against his will. Dystrophic sacrifice is no gift and therefore a bad sacrifice, the one that is always already rejected.

Further, a bad sacrifice, says Ginzburg, has significance beyond a tragic episode in the history of a besieged city. It is also something more fundamental than a peculiarity of the Stalinist symbolic economy. Sacrifice is the price of human togetherness in the name of culture, and possesses a foundation in cultural value. In the 20th century, the age of ultimate catastrophes, it is culture itself that demands bad sacrifices and institutes dystrophic subjectivities, because it is culture — not death — that in its very essence negates life, while life negates cultural value:

The lion is courageous, and being prepared to die is part of the lion’s structure. The naked principle of continuing life (any life) and the multiplication of individual pleasures is only logically possible if one negates culture. Because culture is a social factor and it replaces the category of pleasure by the category of value. Which category, in its turn, presupposes the category of retribution. (pp. 731–732)

This, “in a reality where everything that moves (for example, war) threatens (the individual) with destruction, while everything that is stable and peaceful threatens with emptiness” (p. 144), the threat to life comes first and foremost from value, and value is threatened by life. In the “environment catastrophes of the 20th century”, all orchestrated by military, bureaucratic, and writerly technologies, life (for the writer, again, indivisible from writing) becomes a mere existence “…that is being dragged forward by some forces, and it is not essential whether these forces are understandable or inexplicable. Instead of a free world of ideas, one lives in a suffocating world of total necessity, a world filled with the objective horror of living.” (p. 199). Life becomes ethically impossible, and “ art is productive if it explains why the human being still goes on living (it cannot be out of mere cowardice!), art that shows or seeks to show the ethical possibility of life, even in the environment of the catastrophes of the 20th century”. (p. 200)

Thus, Ginzburg expands her thinking, and thinks the Siege in such a way as to include Stalinism, and likewise thinks the Soviet experience in such a way as to include modern European history. In her generalization, she repeats that expanding gesture by which Walter Benjamin in 1933 folded the whole of the European civilization into the “us” under the sign of radically impoverished experience:

[N]ever has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience, by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers. The generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body.7

Benjamin refers to a community whose “hallmark” is “a total absence of illusion about the age and at the same time an unlimited commitment to it”.8 This is a definition to which Ginzburg would have probably subscribed.

Ginzburg’s “bare existence” is that threshold towards which life and language move, incapable of living under the conditions of the Siege but equally incapable of dying because of the necessity of survival. In the construction of bare existence she seems to echo Benjamin’s other conception of poverty: his notion of bare life (ein blosses Leben).9 The similarity between these two poverties lies not only in how bare existence or bare life are opposed to life as such, but also in the way both are determined ethically. Benjamin’s bare life as he discusses it in his Critique of Violence is not the outcome of violence as such, nor the result of the imposition of external conditions which make life impossible. Bare life is life facing its violent divine Creator, a life before life, only preparing itself for “ethical possibility”. Indeed, the term ein blosses Leben in Benjamin’s writing occurs invariably with one and only one attribute: that of guilt, or debt (Schuld). It is the Schuld alone that determines the difference between life and bare life, and the bareness of bare life itself: it is a life bared of any other predicates but Schuld. This presupposes bare life’s potential development towards a life as such, a “good life” (Benjamin), or an “ethic possibility” of life (Ginzburg).

A “good life”, Benjamin says in an earlier fragment, is a life that is immortal — i.e., to express this in Ginzburg’s terms, a life that is ethically absolutely possible. For Benjamin, the immortality of human life is not the eternity of nature, but the infinity of a life that is unforgettable: “it is a life that is not to be forgotten, even though it has no monument or memorial, or perhaps any testimony. Such life remains unforgettable even though without form or vessel.”10 The unforgettable life of Prince Myshkin lies wholly in the realm of freedom from necessity, in unrestricted ethical possibility. Ginzburg would have probably also subscribed to this understanding of a good life, as opposed to “bare existence”.

Thus, it is only unforgettability — an attribute of life that precedes memory in those who do not forget — that is capable of resolving the bareness of bare Schuld, of relieving the bare guilt of necessities in the name of survival, Ginzburg’s “all-pervading betrayal that no one has evaded”. Why am I writing all this, Ginzburg asks herself at the end of her notes from the Siege. The Siege goes around in circles, and so does destruction, the logic of survival offers no exit either into living, or into death. It is in these circles that life suffocates and transforms into the guilt of “bare existence”, the betrayal. Describing such a circle, Ginzburg says, might help to break it up and thus to give bare existence a fraction of ethical possibility. Breaking up circles is a duty towards the unforgettability of (betrayed) life — and only secondly is it a piece of testimony, a service to the memory of those who are supposed to remember.
Here, however, language makes another circle, and the ethical possibility of life, almost established, once again becomes a specter. Opisyvat’ krugi — in Russian, “describing circles” — also means walking around in circles, aimlessly and sometimes in despair, without an exit. What is, indeed, Ginzburg’s project of witnessing and theorizing survival — is it a gesture of resolving the circular logic of dystrophy, or is it a gesture of resignation to dystrophy’s forgetfulness, its bad eternity?

Indeed, I cannot say.≈


  1. Lidiya Ginzburg, Blockade Diary, London 1995. (Note: Ginzburg’s given name, Ли́дия, is transliterated in different ways by different publishers, thus the variation in the English spellings seen in books translated into English.)
  2. The fullest edition, Lidiia Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki. Vospominaniia. Esse, St. Petersburg 2002. Page numbers after quotations in this essay are given in this edition.
  3. M. V. Chernorutskii, Alimentarnaia distrofiia v blokirovannom Leningrade, Leningrad 1947; S. V. Magaeva, “Fiziologicheskie i psikhosomaticheskie predposylki”, in Zhizn’ i smert’ v blokirovannom Leningrade: Istoriko-meditsinkii aspekt. Eds. J. D. Barber & A. R. Dzeniskevich, St. Petersburg 2001, pp.141–185; V. B. Simonenko, S. V. Magaeva, V. G. Simonenko & Iu. V. Pakhomova, Leningradskaia blokada: Meditsinkie problemy — retrospektiva i sovremennost’, Moscow 2003; N. Iu. Cherepenina, “Golod i smert’ v blokirovannom gorode”, in J. D. Barber & A. R. Dzeniskevich, op. cit., pp. 35–80.
  4. Ginzburg referes to Viktor Shklovskii’s 1916 concept of “denuding the technique” (of writing) (obnazhenie priema) as the central critical procedure in the formalist interpretation of text.
  5. G. D. Barber & A. R. Dzeniskevich, op. cit., p. 56
  6. Ibid., p. 48; N. A. Lomagin. V tiskakh goloda: Blokada Leningrada v dokumentakh germanskikh spetsluzhb i NKVD, St. Petersburg 2001, p. 169.
  7. Walter Benjamin, “Experience and Poverty”, in Selected Writings. Vol. 2: 1927–1934, Cambridge, Mass. 1999, p. 732.
  8. Ibid., p. 733.
  9. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”, in Selected Writings. Vol. 1: 1913-1926, Cambridge, Mass. 1996, pp. 236–252
  10. Walter Benjamin, “Dostoevsky’s The Idiot”, ibid., p. 78.
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